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'We need strong rules to protect workers,' Brown says, while assessing our pandemic times

Mahoning Matters chatted with the U.S. senator about the latest coronavirus issues — and how more data could be made available to the public during the pandemic.
Sherrod Brown 04272020
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown during a November 2019 interview with Mahoning Matters.
YOUNGSTOWN — As a news organization, we’ve approached our coverage of the coronavirus pandemic in phases. 

First people will want to know about the virus — how it affects families and communities. People will need to know how to cope with the shutdown of business and schools. And, then they’ll know someone who has the virus and will eventually know someone who has died from it. 

One theme that’s united every new aspect of this pandemic is access to quality information. 

From fact-checking the antiviral qualities of bleach — please don't try it — to looking for more information about cases from local leaders, wading through bad information and encountering obstacles to good information has been a major challenge. 

Mahoning Matters had the opportunity to chat with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown on Friday and he voiced some of the same concerns. 

For Brown, that starts with watching every presidential briefing.

"I watch them all partly because I want to correct misinformation. When the president says, 'Maybe you should think about ingesting [disinfectant],'" said Brown. "Trump has enough strong supporters that some of them will do that, and some people will get hurt. But I contrast that with [Gov. Mike DeWine] and his health director Dr. [Amy] Acton. I think you can’t go wrong by listening to those news conferences."

We encounter misinformation and mistaken perceptions on a local level every day.

A commenter last week called us "death-peddlers" — which, admittedly, would make a pretty rad band name — for not publicizing the number of people who have recovered from COVID-19. 

When asked for this data, state leaders have said they're not ready to release it. We would love to know. And if we had access to this number, we would post it in a heartbeat. 

One question we’ve been unable to answer given the information available is, why has Mahoning County had such a high level of COVID-19 deaths?

We see health departments make individual decisions on how much information to release. We’ve looked to Cleveland, where Cuyahoga County has released zip code breakdowns. In the absence of racial comprehensive demographic data about cases, experts in Cleveland have been able to pinpoint that the hardest hit zip codes have larger black populations

But going up against Valley health departments hasn't yielded results, and systemic change regarding data is not on the horizon, Brown said. 

Maybe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can mandate that health departments provide zip codes? 

"One of the things I'm asking for — I've asked the administration. I've talked to health departments. We're trying to get extra legislations. I've worked with Sens. [Elizabeth] Warren and [Kamala] Harris on this — is that we gather this data, this demographic data, and aggregate by race and gender and zip code and everything, just like you're suggesting. The administration has not shown much interest in that at this point," said Brown. "But we're going to keep trying."

If you've been tuning in to Gov. DeWine's daily coronavirus briefing, you're probably aware that he's been teasing an announcement about opening the state back up. 

As journalists, we worry about businesses being given the responsibility to follow protocol and protect their workers. 

Although Lt. Gov. Jon Husted has repeatedly noted that essential businesses have been operating during the shutdown while doing this, we still receive tips from nursing home employees and other workers who claim that their employer covered up cases or refused to allow them to wear masks. 

"We need strong rules to protect workers," Brown said. "That's not just the hospital workers. It's the supermarket shelf restockers. It's the drug store clerks. It's the woman who takes the laundry at the hospital. It's the man who does security. It's the people who prepare food. It's the city bus drivers."

"But it's also the new people coming back into the workforce who've been laid off, making sure they have the right protective equipment."

Brown said he was speaking with a reporter at the Toledo Blade who noticed the difference in coronavirus protection between employees of different grocery stores. 

"I said, 'Let me guess. Kroger is the one where they're protected because it's union.' She said, 'Yes.' 'The other is Whole Foods — it's non-union,'" Brown said.

In late March, Whole Foods employees staged a "sick out" to protest the lack of worker protection — including hazard pay and PPE — during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers have since raised the issue of forming a union.

"What [businesses are] doing is putting people's lives at risk," Brown said. "when you don't have a strong government making sure these workplaces are safe."

As we look to the future — whatever reality comes after this pandemic — one thing that’s clear is that the nation’s response to this crisis will be litigated and re-litigated for decades. 

Hindsight isn't necessary to acknowledge the state of American prisons was ripe to acutely experience this catastrophe.

Last weekend, Marion Correctional Institution became the nation’s biggest coronavirus hotspot when more than 70 percent of the 2,500 people imprisoned there tested positive for the virus. 

"There are more [infections] there than in Cuyahoga County," said Brown. 

Governors all over the country have been scrambling to relieve overcrowding in state prisons. Brown would like to see the pandemic be an impetus of change in this area and others. 

"There's hardly any good that comes out of something like this of course, but one of the things that might come out is we really re-examine better health disparities," Brown said. "I'm hopeful we look at the rate of incarceration for people who have committed non-violent crimes. Do we lock them up and how long do we lock them up for?"

"Those questions are questions I hope we get serious about."

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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